The Privateersman, or One Hundred Years Ago/Chapter I

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To Mistress —.

Respected Madam,

In compliance with your request I shall now transcribe from the journal of my younger days some portions of my adventurous life. When I wrote, I painted the feelings of my heart without reserve, and I shall not alter one word, as I know you wish to learn what my feelings were then, and not what my thoughts may be now. They say that in every man’s life, however obscure his position may be, there would be a moral found, were it truly told. I think, Madam, when you have perused what I am about to write, you will agree with me, that from my history both old and young may gather profit, and I trust, if ever it should be made public, that, by Divine permission, such may be the result. Without further preface I shall commence with a narrative of my cruise off Hispaniola, in the Revenge privateer.

The Revenge mounted fourteen guns, and was commanded by Captain Weatherall, a very noted privateer’s-man. One morning at daybreak we discovered a vessel from the masthead, and immediately made all sail in chase, crowding every stitch of canvass. As we neared, we made her out to be a large ship, deeply laden, and we imagined that she would be an easy prize; but as we saw her hull more out of the water, she proved to be well armed, having a full tier of guns fore and aft. As it afterwards proved, she was a vessel of 600 tons burden, and mounted twenty-four guns, having sailed from Saint Domingo, and being bound to France.

She had been chartered by a French gentleman (and a most gallant fellow we found him), who had acquired a large fortune in the West Indies, and was then going home, having embarked on board his whole property, as well as his wife and his only son, a youth of about seventeen. As soon as he discovered what we were, and the impossibility of escape from so fast a sailing vessel as the Revenge, he resolved to fight us to the last. Indeed he had everything to fight for; his whole property, his wife and his only child, his own liberty, and perhaps life, were all at stake, and he had every motive that could stimulate a man. As we subsequently learnt, he had great difficulty in inspiring the crew with an equal resolution, and it was not until he had engaged to pay them the value of half the cargo, provided they succeeded in beating us off and forcing their way in safety to France, that he could rouse them to their duty.

Won by his example, for he told them that he did not desire any man to do more than he would do himself, and perhaps more induced by his generous offer, the French crew declared they would support him to the last, went cheerfully to their guns, and prepared for action. When we were pretty near to him, he shortened sail ready for the combat, having tenderly forced his wife down below to await in agony the issue of a battle on which depended everything so dear to her. The resolute bearing of the vessel, and the cool intrepidity with which they had hove-to to await us, made us also prepare on our side for a combat which we knew would be severe. Although she was superior to us in guns, yet, the Revenge being wholly fitted for war, we had many advantages, independent of our being very superior in men. Some few chase-guns were fired during our approach, when, having ranged up within a cable’s length of her, we exchanged broadsides for half an hour, after which our captain determined upon boarding. We ran our vessel alongside, and attempted to throw our men on board, but met with a stout resistance. The French gentleman, who was at the head of his men, with his own hand killed two of our stoutest seamen, and mortally wounded a third, and, encouraged by his example, his people fought with such resolution that after a severe struggle we were obliged to retreat precipitately into our own vessel, leaving eight or ten of our shipmates weltering in their blood.

Our captain, who had not boarded with us, was much enraged at our defeat, stigmatising us as cowards for allowing ourselves to be driven from a deck upon which we had obtained a footing; he called upon us to renew the combat, and leading the way he was the first on board of the vessel, and was engaged hand to hand with the brave French gentleman who had already made such slaughter among our men. Brave and expert with his weapon as Captain Weatherall undoubtedly was, he for once found rather more than a match in his antagonist; he was slightly wounded, and would, I suspect, have had the worst of this hand-to-hand conflict, had not the whole of our crew, who had now gained the deck, and were rushing forward, separated him from his opponent. Out-numbered and over-matched, the French crew fought most resolutely, but notwithstanding their exertions, and the gallant conduct of their leader, we succeeded in driving them back to the quarter-deck of the vessel. Here the combat was renewed with the greatest obstinacy, they striving to maintain this their last hold, and we exerting ourselves to complete our conquest. The Frenchmen could retreat no further, and our foremost men were impelled against them by those behind them crowding on to share in the combat. Retreat being cut off, the French struggled with all the animosity and rage of mingled hate and despair; while we, infuriated at the obstinate resistance, were filled with vengeance and a thirst for blood. Wedged into one mass, we grappled together, for there was no room for fair fighting, seeking each other’s hearts with shortened weapons, struggling and falling together on the deck, rolling among the dead and the dying, or trodden underfoot by the others who still maintained the combat with unabated fury.

Numbers at last prevailed; we had gained a dear-bought victory—we were masters of the deck, we had struck the colours, and were recovering our lost breaths after this very severe contest, and thought ourselves in full possession of the ship; but it proved otherwise. The first-lieutenant of the privateer and six of us had dashed down the companion, and were entering the cabin in search of plunder, when we found opposed to our entrance the gallant French gentleman, supported by his son, the captain of the vessel, and five of the French sailors; behind them was the French gentleman’s wife, to whose protection they had devoted themselves. The lieutenant, who headed us, offered them quarter, but, stung to madness at the prospect of the ruin and of the captivity which awaited him, the gentleman treated the offer with contempt, and rushing forward attacked our lieutenant, beating down his guard, and was just about to pierce him with the lunge which he made, when I fired my pistol at him to save the life of my officer. The ball entered his heart, and thus died one of the bravest men I ever encountered. His son at the same time was felled to the deck with a pole-axe, when the remainder threw themselves down on the deck and cried for quarter. So enraged were our men at this renewal of the combat that it required all the efforts and authority of the lieutenant to prevent them from completing the massacre by taking the lives of those who no longer resisted. But who could paint the condition of that unhappy lady who had stood a witness of the horrid scene—her eyes blasted with the sight of her husband slain before her face, her only son groaning on the deck and weltering in his blood; and she left alone, bereft of all that was dear to her; stripped of the wealth she was that morning mistress of, now a widow, perhaps childless, a prisoner, a beggar, and in the hands of lawless ruffians, whose hands were reeking with her husband’s and offspring’s blood, at their mercy, and exposed to every evil which must befall a beautiful and unprotected female from those who were devoid of all principle, all pity, and all fear! Well might the frantic creature rush as she did upon our weapons, and seek that death which would have been a mercy and a blessing. With difficulty we prevented her from injuring herself, and, after a violent struggle, nature yielded, and she sank down in a swoon on the body of her husband, dabbling her clothes and hair in the gore which floated on the cabin-deck. This scene of misery shocked even the actors in it. Our sailors, accustomed as they were to blood and rapine, remained silent and immoveable, resting upon their weapons, their eyes fixed upon the unconscious form of that unhappy lady.

The rage of battle was now over, our passions had subsided, and we felt ashamed of a conquest purchased with such unutterable anguish. The noise of this renewed combat had brought down the captain; he ordered the lady to be taken away from this scene of horror, and to be carefully tended in his own cabin; the wound of the son, who was found still alive, was immediately dressed, and the prisoners were secured. I returned on deck, still oppressed with the scene I had witnessed, and when I looked round me, and beheld the deck strewed with the dead and dying—victors and vanquished indiscriminately mixed up together—the blood of both nations meeting on the deck and joining their streams, I could not help putting the question to myself, “Can this be right and lawful—all this carnage to obtain the property of others, and made legal by the quarrels of kings?” Reason, religion, and humanity answered, “No.”

I remained uneasy and dissatisfied, and felt as if I were a murderer; and then I reflected how this property, thus wrested from its former possessor, who might, if he had retained it, have done much good with it, would now be squandered away in riot and dissipation, in purchasing crime and administering to debauchery. I was young then, and felt so disgusted and so angry with myself and everybody else, that if I had been in England I probably should never again have put my foot on board of a privateer.

But employment prevented my thinking; the decks had to be cleaned, the bodies thrown overboard, the blood washed from the white planks, the wounded to be removed and their hurts dressed, the rigging and other damages to be repaired, and when all this had been done we made sail for Jamaica with our prize. Our captain, who was as kind and gentle to the vanquished as he was brave and resolute in action, endeavoured by all the means he could think of to soften the captivity and sufferings of the lady. Her clothes, jewels, and everything belonging to her, were preserved untouched; he would not even allow her trunks to be searched, and would have secured for her even all her husband’s personal effects, but the crew had seized upon them as plunder, and refused to deliver them up. I am almost ashamed to say that the sword and watch of her husband fell to my lot, and, whether from my wearing the sword, or from having seen me fire the pistol which had killed him, the lady always expressed her abhorrence of me whenever I entered her presence. Her son recovered slowly from his wound, and on our arrival at Port Royal was permitted by the admiral to be sent to the King’s Hospital, and the lady, who was most tenderly attached to him, went on shore and remained at the Hospital to attend upon him. I was glad when she was gone, for I knew how much cause she had for her hatred of me, and I could not see her without remorse. As soon, as we had completed our repairs, filled up our provisions and water, we sailed upon another cruise, which was not so successful, as you will presently perceive.

For five or six weeks we cruised without success, and our people began to grumble, when one morning our boats in shore off Hispaniola surprised a small schooner. A negro who was among the prisoners offered to conduct us through the woods by night to the house of a very rich planter, which was situated about three miles from a small bay, and at some distance from the other plantations. He asserted that we might there get very valuable plunder, and, moreover, obtain a large ransom for the planter and his family, besides bringing away as many of the negro slaves as we pleased.

Our captain, who was tired of his ill-success, and who hoped also to procure provisions, which we very much wanted, consented to the negro’s proposal, and standing down abreast of the bay, which was in the Bight of Lugan, he ran in at dark, and anchoring close to the shore we landed with forty men, and, guided by the negro, we proceeded through the woods to the house. The negro was tied fast to one of our stoutest and best men, for fear he should give us the slip. It was a bright moonlight; we soon arrived, and surrounding the house forced our way in without opposition. Having secured the negroes in the out-houses, and placed guards over them, and videttes on the look-out to give timely notice of any surprise, we proceeded to our work of plunder. The family, consisting of the old planter and his wife and his three daughters, two of them very beautiful, was secured in one room. No words can express their terror at thus finding themselves so suddenly in the power of a set of ruffians, from whose brutality they anticipated every evil. Indeed, the horrid excesses committed by the privateersmen when they landed on the coast fully justified their fears; for as this system of marauding is considered the basest of all modern warfare, no quarter is ever given to those who are taken in the attempt. In return, the privateersmen hesitate at no barbarity when engaged in such enterprises.

Dumb with astonishment and terror, the old couple sat in silent agony, while the poor girls, who had more evils than death to fear, drowned in their tears fell at the captain’s feet and embraced his knees, conjuring him to spare and protect them from his men.

Captain Weatherall, who was, as I have before stated, a generous and humane man, raised them up, assuring them, on his word, that they should receive no insult; and as his presence was necessary to direct the motions of his people, he selected me, as younger and less brutal than most of his crew, as a guard over them, menacing me with death if I allowed any man to enter the room until he returned, and ordering me to defend them with my life from all insults. I was then young and full of enthusiasm; my heart was kind, and I was pure in comparison with the major portion of those with whom I was associated.

I was delighted with the office confided to me, and my heart leaped at having so honourable an employment. I endeavoured by every means in my power to dissipate their terrors and soothe their anxious minds; but while I was thus employed, an Irish seaman, distinguished even amongst our crew for his atrocities, came to the door, and would have forced his entrance. I instantly opposed him, urging the captain’s most positive commands; but, having obtained a sight of the young females, he swore with a vile oath that he would soon find out whether a boy like me was able to oppose him, and finding that I would not give way he attacked me fiercely. Fortunately I had the advantage of position, and, supported by the justice of my cause, I repelled him with success. But he renewed the attack, while the poor young women awaited the issue of the combat with trembling anxiety—a combat on which depended, in all probability, their honour and their lives. At last I found myself very hard pushed, for I had received a wound on my sword arm, and I drew a pistol from my belt with my left hand, and fired it, wounding him in the shoulder. Thus disabled, and fearing at the same time that the report would bring back the captain, who he well knew would not be trifled with, he retired from the door vowing vengeance. I then turned to the young women, who had witnessed the conflict in breathless suspense, encircled in the arms of the poor old couple, who had rushed towards them at the commencement of the fray, offering them their useless shelter. Privateersman as I was, I could not refrain from tears at the scene. I again attempted to re-assure them, pledged myself in the most solemn manner to forfeit my life if necessary for their protection, and they in some degree regained their confidence. They observed the blood trickling down my fingers from the wound which I had received, and the poor girls stained their handkerchiefs with it in the attempts to staunch the flow.

But this scene was soon interrupted by an alarm. It appeared that a negro had contrived to escape and to rouse the country. They had collected together from the other plantations, and our party being, as is usually the case when plunder is going on, very negligent, the videttes were surprised, and had hardly time to escape and apprise us of our danger. There was not a moment to be lost; our safety depended upon an immediate retreat. The captain collected all hands; and while he was getting them together, that the retreat might be made in good order, the old planter, who, by the report of the fire-arms and the bustle and confusion without, guessed what had taken place, pressed me to remain with them, urging the certainty of our men being overpowered, and the merciless consequences which would ensue. He pledged himself, with his fingers crossed in the form of the crucifix, that he would procure me safe quarter, and that I should ever enjoy his protection and friendship. I refused him kindly but firmly, and he sighed and said no more. The old lady put a ring on my finger, which she took from her own hand, and kissing my forehead told me to look at that ring and continue to do good and act nobly as I had just done.

I waved my hand, for I had no time even to take the proffered hands of the young ones, and hastened to join my shipmates, already on the retreat, and exchanging shots with our pursuers. We were harassed by a multitude, but they were a mixed company of planters, mulattoes, and slaves, and not half of them armed, and we easily repelled their attacks whenever they came to close quarters. Their violent animosity, however, against us and our evil doings induced them to follow close at our heels, keeping up a galling irregular fire, and endeavouring to detain us until we might be overpowered by their numbers, every minute increasing, for the whole country had been raised, and were flocking in. This our captain was well aware of, and therefore made all the haste that he could, without disturbing the regularity of his retreat, to where our boats were lying, as should they be surprised and cut off our escape would have been impossible. Notwithstanding all his care, several of our men were separated from us by the intricacies of the wood, or from wounds which they had received, and which prevented them from keeping up with us. At last, after repelling many attacks, each time more formidable than the preceding, we gained our boats, and embarking with the greatest precipitation we put off for the schooner. The enemy, emboldened by our flight, flocked down in great numbers to the water’s edge, and we had the mortification to hear our stragglers who had been captured imploring for mercy; but groans and then silence too plainly informed us that mercy had been denied.

Captain Weatherall was so enraged at the loss of his men that he ordered us to pull back and attack the enemy on the beach, but we continued to pull for the schooner, regardless of his threats and entreaties. A panic had seized us all, as well it might. We even dreaded the ill-aimed and irregular fire which they poured upon us, which under other circumstances would have occasioned only laughter. The schooner had been anchored only two hundred yards from the beach, and we were soon on board. They continued to fire from the shore, and the balls passed over us. We put a spring upon our cable, warped our broadside to the beach, and loading every gun with grape and cannister we poured a whole broadside upon our assailants. From the shrieks and cries, the carnage must have been very great. The men would have reloaded and fired again, but the captain forbade them, saying, “We have done too much already.” I thought so too. He then ordered the anchor to be weighed, and with a fresh land breeze we were soon far away from this unlucky spot.